We humans, we love, love, love the familiar. It’s in our primate, hominoid genes: familiarity equals safety. When everything looks just like it did last time we checked (and we’re always checking), our monkey-brains are assured there’s no predator hiding anywhere. No lion in the tall grass. No sun-blotting-out giant eagle in the sky (no kidding, we used to have to worry about that, and not that long ago). No crocodiles at the watering hole.
We like going where we’re safe.
Even for our entertainment.
Marketers know this. Publishers know this… and it’s reflected in the way they market and publish books.
It’s why so many urban fantasy or supernatural romance book covers feature a woman with her back to you, looking over her shoulder or just slightly down, like she’s scoping out some change that fell out of her pockets, if she had any pockets. She’s usually holding some kind of weapon, too, and, for a few years there back in the nineties and early aughts, you can bet the fine hairs on the small of her back she sported a shoulder tattoo and / or tramp stamp.
It’s why military science fiction novel covers often have big, chunky, colorful spacecraft hovering over a planet.
It’s why self-help books marketed to women have light or bright colors, and why business books aimed at men have big, bold colors and giant typography.
These are signals to our brains: “this thing is like something else I am familiar with, and so is safe and will not hurt me (and is something I am likely to enjoy).”
This tendency toward familiarity extends to what’s between the covers, too. How many creative writing gurus point you toward the Monomyth (you may have experienced it as “the hero’s journey”) as not just a fascinating description of the roots of commonality in human storytelling, but as a straight up blueprint for how to tell your stories?
What about “Save the Cat?”
Or the Bechdel Test?
As readers, we gravitate toward what we’re familiar with.
As writers who are also readers, naturally when we write we are influenced by — and ape (see what I did, there?) — what we’ve read.
That can work, to be sure. There are excellent books out there that are clear descendants of someone else’s work.
And there are lots and lots of books that are write-by-numbers beat-by-beat pale shadows of what’s come before. They’re catalogs of cliches and tropes, predictable and flimsy.
Sometimes, those books are deliberate attempts to “write to the market,” and they rope in a population of casual readers large enough to encourage the author to do more of the same… more. And more.
Often, though, the pastiche is the unintentional result of the author’s own timidity: a (probably subconscious) desire to stay in safe, familiar territory.
And maybe, as a writer, you’re comfortable there. You’re satisfied with the resulting work.
The tramp stamp doesn’t itch, not even a little.
The trouble with that?
As much as we all like the familiar and the safe in our literature, it doesn’t do much to advance us emotionally, intellectually, or culturally.
It might be fun; it might feel good while we’re in it, but after?
Think about it: have you ever read a book, enjoyed it, and then, two weeks later, not been able to remember a damn thing about it? And a week after that, when you see it mentioned in Amazon, or on a blog, or social media, feel mild surprise when you remember already reading it?
By that point, you’ve probably moved on to another book in your safe-zone (genre) of choice. “Read, rinse from your brain, repeat.”
Sure, each one probably has different characters (at least by name and superficial description), different settings, and so on. But really? Those books are, ultimately, interchangeable.
Do you really want to be the person who wrote that thing?
Again: if you are okay with that, so be it.
Just please stop reading this.
If you’re comfortable in the creative safe zone of uniformity, stop reading this article. Stop reading this blog. If you’ve subscribed, unsubscribe. This stuff isn’t for you. Best of luck. Go do you, even if “you,” creatively, is just another grain of sand on the beach, blade of grass on the lawn, water molecule in the glass, blah blah blah…
To those of you still reading, dig it: you can do better than safe sameness. You can reach like a sunflower in the middle of the field, high above — and unmistakably distinct from — the rest.
Let everyone else tell disposable stories. You can… you should… be irreplaceable.
How To Be Irreplaceable
What might make you irreplaceable in the minds of your readers? How can you make sure your work doesn’t blend with that of other authors?
Here are a few suggestions.
Throw Out Your First Five Ideas
Genres — and by “genres” I mean categories of both fiction and non-fiction — each have their own sets of standard concepts and tropes. If you’re a fan of the genre you’re writing in, chances are you’re subconsciously aware of those tropes, and they’re going to find their way into your work.
Whether you’re a planner or make things up as you go, I strongly suggest you abandon the first… and second… and third… and probably fourth and maybe fifth… ideas that come to you. Chances are, they’re tainted by your inherent familiarity with your genre of choice.
When you’re plugging along, typing up a storm, and the ideas are flowing a mile a minute? That’s a good sign those ideas are stale… or, to be more kind, a warning to you that you could do better.
Don’t trust your own assumed brilliance. Push yourself. Every time you start a new work, you want it to be better than your last. If it’s not, you’re being lazy; not challenging yourself.
Easy ideas are easy.
Toss ’em out and think.
The sixth idea will be unmistakably yours. Your readers will be consistently delighted and surprised. You’ll be irreplaceable.
Have Something To Say
You have opinions, morals, beliefs, and ethics that determine who you vote for, who your friends are, where your charitable contributions go, and which relatives you fight with around the holiday dinner table and on social media.
How much of that conviction ends up in your work?
Granted, the author’s opinion is more likely to end up in a non-fiction work, but even then, when an informed opinion is nearly always the actual point of the book, I often sense restraint.
In fiction, it’s a fine line between taking a position and allowing propaganda to smother a story.
That said: is there any opportunity in your work for you to present a specific point of view? To allow yourself to have a voice that doesn’t drown out the voices of your characters?
Do you have the courage to let that voice be heard?
I understand you might not want to use your work as a megaphone. Maybe you’re concerned you’ll limit your potential audience.
Well, to the first point: it doesn’t have to be a megaphone. Your philosophical point of view could just as well be a steady, confident tone. Assert; don’t preach.
And to the second point: don’t worry about losing the people who won’t like what you have to say. Worry about finding the people who do.
If you allow yourself to stand for something, albeit subtly and never, never, never at the expense of the story you’re trying to tell, you work will be instantly recognizable as yours. You’ll be irreplaceable.
I’ll grant that this one’s a cousin to the last, but it’s also probably the thing many writers find the most difficult.
Have the courage to put yourself in your story.
Not in a “Mary Sue” way. Rather, I want you to dig deep into your own personal history: your worst moments, your best moments, your heartbreaks, your triumphs, your failures, your crisis of conscience, your lapses in judgement.
Give those moments — ones you can, with some hindsight, recognize as being rich with pathos and drama and conflict — over to your characters. If you’re writing non-fiction, you may have to be even more transparent and make yourself the object lesson for whatever it is you’re teaching readers.
It’s going to be rough. If you really allow the honesty of those moments to flow into your writing, it’s going to be absolutely exhausting.
It will, however, be worth it. You’ll end up with a work that’s more affecting and effective; the specificity of your own experience will actually help your work be stronger and have universal appeal. Shared experience is empathy food.
Neat trick: when readers empathize with experiences that carry the ring of authenticity (and they will, because they’ll be things that actually happened to you!), they acquire an emotional connection to the work… and to the author of that work.
Guess what that means? They’ll never confuse you for anyone else. Your work will never fade and become indistinguishable from everyone else. And when your reader wants more of the same, they’ll only be able to come to you. Because…
You’ll be irreplaceable!
Who Are Your Irreplaceable Authors… and Why?
For me, irreplaceable authors include Ray Bradbury, Franz Kafka, Anton Chekhov, and Ursula K. LeGuin, to name a few off the top of my head.
What authors do you consider irreplaceable, and why? What have you learned from their example? Tell me all about it in the comments of this post, or, if you’re reading this as a subscriber, email me! Let’s talk about it.